Tops’ success hinges on their senior leaders

Senior guard T.J. Price (52) dribbles out of the lane during the second half of WKU’s game against Austin Peay on Saturday. Price led all scorers with 22 points and was a perfect 4-4 from three-point range as WKU defeated the Governors, 77-70. Brandon Carter/HERALD

Kyle Williams

A disastrous start that yielded 16 first-half turnovers plagued the Hilltoppers in a 76-54 loss at Minnesota on Tuesday night in the NIT Season Tip-Off.

Normally, an early-season loss to a top-50 program shouldn’t stir the pot too violently, but the lowly performances of the Hilltoppers’ senior leaders should.

WKU (1-1) shot just 31.6 percent from the floor, 28.6 percent from the three-point line and committed 25 turnovers. Seniors George Fant, T.J. Price and Trency Jackson combined to shoot 27.2 percent from the field and coughed up the ball 14 times.

Price and Jackson logged 56 minutes and combined for 36 points on 11-of-23 shooting, including a 6-for-10 clip from the three-point line, in WKU’s season-opening win against Austin Peay. On Tuesday, the duo combined for 12 points on 4-of-14 shooting — 2-of-7 from beyond the arc — and 11 turnovers in 46 minutes.

Fant has yet to get the ball rolling in his senior season, totaling just eight points and 10 rebounds on 3-of-9 shooting in 39 minutes of play through two games.

“Hopefully, they’ll bounce back Saturday,” Head Coach Ray Harper said to Zach Greenwell of the Bowling Green Daily News after the game. “If you’re going to win and win on the road, you’ve got to have your seniors play well.”

The Hilltoppers did manage to find some production from veteran forward Nigel Snipes and freshman forward Justin Johnson. The two combined for 30 of the Hilltoppers’ 54 points on 57.8 percent shooting and 15 rebounds in 46 minutes.

Snipes netted a career-high 15 points, which included four three-pointers, and tied a career-high with eight rebounds in 21 minutes.

Johnson’s 15-point eight-rebound performance marked the highest regular-season totals for the freshman after recording 18 and 10 in the Hilltoppers’ exhibition against Pikeville.

Snipes told the Daily News following the game that he expects the trio of seniors to rebound on Saturday against Belmont at 7 p.m.

“They’re going to be fine,” Snipes said. “We’re going to get back to work, refocus and regroup. We’re going to be fine. They’re going to get back to their normal selves. This just happened. It happens.”

There’s no doubt in my mind that the seniors will bounce back, either — but they’re going to have to in a big way both offensively and defensively in order for it to result in a win on Saturday.

The Hilltoppers are pitted against a savvy Belmont team (1-1) that boasts a +11 scoring margin through two regular-season games as of press time. Of the team’s eight returning players, six are guards that helped lead Belmont and its potent three-point shooting prowess to a 26-10 record a season ago.

Senior Reece Chamberlain and junior Craig Bradshaw are the lone returning starters in the Bruin backcourt and have each logged over 1,000 minutes of play. As of press time, the two are averaging 29 points per game on 56.4 percent shooting.

A big night should finally be in store for Fant, as the Bruins lost nearly all of its frontcourt production from a season ago. Belmont starts two true freshmen at the forward and center positions, respectively, in Evan Bradds and Tyler Hadden.

A successful bounce-back performance might be more difficult for Price and Jackson, as the Bruins have held the six starting backcourt players they’ve faced so far this season to a total of 63 points. Nevertheless, the battle of two experienced backcourts will be an enticing matchup. Now it’s up to you to get to Diddle Arena on Saturday at 7 p.m. to see for yourself.